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partner perspectives

Apr 8, 2015 | 15:54 GMT

15 mins read

The implications of Jokowi's global maritime axis

Partner Perspectives are a collection of high-quality analyses and commentary produced by organizations around the world. Though Stratfor does not necessarily endorse the views expressed here — and may even disagree with them — we respect the rigorous and innovative thought that their unique points of view inspire.

April-June 2015
 
By Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman for Strategic Review
 
Joko Widodo’s global maritime axis, the central foreign policy pillar of the new presidential administration, is a good thing – at least in theory. After all, attempting to protect Indonesia’s sovereignty, boost its maritime defenses, tackle regional piracy, improve the country’s infrastructure and enhance connectivity within Indonesia, among other things, are all worthy goals.
 
Combined, these goals can strengthen Indonesia’s national identity, its security, economy and even its soft power, all of which can elevate the country’s status and position in the world.
 
But when we move from theory to practice – actually implementing the axis policy – the story gets a bit murky. Putting the policy into place in the real world naturally sparks consequences, at both the regional and international levels. Some of these consequences are good and some are not so good, no matter how well intended the policy and its creators and proponents might be.
 
Because the global maritime axis is not a clear-cut win for Indonesia, it is incumbent upon Indonesian officials and citizens to recognize and understand its foreign policy implications. If they do, Indonesians will be well positioned to determine whether the axis is worth the resources or should be scrapped or refined, and how to prepare for potential regional and global responses. 
This essay aims to push the dialogue on the global maritime axis forward, and in particular discuss and analyze its foreign policy merits.
 
Let’s start with Indonesia’s backyard in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific. Better maritime capabilities could go a long way toward helping Indonesia to problem solve, both individually and collectively, a host of issues in its backyard. And in particular, it could strengthen Asean’s own ability to act, which is important considering that the regional grouping has been criticized by some observers as more of a talk shop than an actual results-oriented body.
 
A stronger Indonesia empowers the overall capabilities of Asean. As a result, Asean as a whole would be better suited to deal with issues including piracy, the safe passage of trade through Southeast Asian waters, environmental and weather catastrophes, air disasters and so on.
 
The downside, of course, is that a beefed-up Indonesian Navy and its new Coast Guard could threaten regional stability. While the foreign policy of the previous administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was often criticized as toothless and lacking coherence and direction, with its oft-quoted maxim of “a thousand friends, zero enemy,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s foreign policy seems, so far, to be overly nationalistic. This could trigger alarm bells and handwringing in Southeast Asian capitals about whether the global maritime axis signals a shift toward a more confrontational and aggressive foreign policy posture.
 
To a certain extent this has already proven to be true, as Joko, in order to bolster his credentials as tough regarding Indonesian sovereignty and security, has ordered the scuttling of foreign ships caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Reactions from neighboring countries have been swift, with many warning that Indonesia could increase regional tensions and hinder growing cooperation among Asean nations.
 
The global maritime axis should be put in the larger context of Joko’s policy making. Just consider his other moves since taking office last October. He authorized the executions of five foreign nationals on death row for drug smuggling – the first executions in Indonesia since late 2013 – despite appeals from their countries’ governments to commute their sentences. Joko has reorganized and streamlined his cabinet and been willing to risk political capital by making controversial political appointments.
 
He all but eliminated state subsidized gasoline, at the risk of his job approval rating. Bucking a longstanding trend, Joko has questioned the tactics and methods of security forces in Papua and promised to investigate the shooting deaths of five protesters there last December. There are even reports of Joko sweeping old Yudhoyono administration officials out of government positions.
 
All of this, in conjunction with the global maritime axis, signals to the world that there’s a new and distinct leader in Indonesia, and changes to Indonesian policy are afoot. Indonesia will no longer pursue selfless policies that seek to avoid offending anyone or anything. There is now a price to be paid for Jakarta’s friendship. As Joko himself remarked: “What’s the point of having many friends, but we only get the disadvantages?”
 
This logic could lead to a chill in Indonesian-Australian diplomatic relations, which have already been rocky during the past 18 months. A 2013 spying scandal put the brakes on the relationship, but arguably the more troubling issue is Canberra’s “turn back the boats” policy. Jakarta sees this as an infringement of Indonesian sovereignty and protested its implementation. Now, with a stronger emphasis on maritime sovereignty and a seemingly greater willingness to defend and protect it, we could see the high seas as a major flashpoint in the relationship. For instance, it is possible Indonesia could take maritime measures to prevent Australia from entering its waters to send asylum seekers back home. If that happened, how would Australia respond?
 
Such tussles are part of a much broader competition between Canberra and Jakarta. Both are vying for the status of king of the “middle powers,” on both a regional and global scale. Australia is a competent, though not dominant, military and economic power. Because of its climate, and cultural factors such as language and religion, and its smart diplomacy, Australia also wields considerable soft power. But Indonesia is catching up fast in a host of material and nonmaterial power indices, and Australia is well aware of this. It may see itself as one day soon being eclipsed by its “little brother” to the north and could be fearful of losing status and prestige to its neighbor.
 
It’s up to both sides to delicately manage this likely regional power transition. Indonesia must reassure Australia that it means no harm; Australia must give Indonesia a proper seat at the table of global and middle powers, showing Jakarta the respect it will want and deserve.
 
With respect to the broader Asia Pacific, an assertive Indonesia could pave the way for a clash with China, especially on Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea. The Indonesian Armed Forces, for example, have made strident tones about the sovereignty of the Natuna Islands, which appear to fall within China’s nine-dash line, and would like to see a more significant defense presence there. Might an emphasis on maritime power and security embolden the Indonesian military to take provocative actions in defense of the Natunas or even against Chinese fishing vessels that travel through Indonesian waters? It’s possible down the line, though for now, Indonesia will likely underplay any differences with Beijing, as it still looks to China as a source of foreign direct investment to upgrade its decaying infrastructure and jump-start economic development in the eastern part of the country.
Joko Widodo’s global maritime axis, the central foreign policy pillar of the new presidential administration, is a good thing – at least in theory. After all, attempting to protect Indonesia’s sovereignty, boost its maritime defenses, tackle regional piracy, improve the country’s infrastructure and enhance connectivity within Indonesia, among other things, are all worthy goals.
 
Combined, these goals can strengthen Indonesia’s national identity, its security, economy and even its soft power, all of which can elevate the country’s status and position in the world.
 
But when we move from theory to practice – actually implementing the axis policy – the story gets a bit murky. Putting the policy into place in the real world naturally sparks consequences, at both the regional and international levels. Some of these consequences are good and some are not so good, no matter how well intended the policy and its creators and proponents might be.
 
Because the global maritime axis is not a clear-cut win for Indonesia, it is incumbent upon Indonesian officials and citizens to recognize and understand its foreign policy implications. If they do, Indonesians will be well positioned to determine whether the axis is worth the resources or should be scrapped or refined, and how to prepare for potential regional and global responses. 
This essay aims to push the dialogue on the global maritime axis forward, and in particular discuss and analyze its foreign policy merits.
 
Let’s start with Indonesia’s backyard in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific. Better maritime capabilities could go a long way toward helping Indonesia to problem solve, both individually and collectively, a host of issues in its backyard. And in particular, it could strengthen Asean’s own ability to act, which is important considering that the regional grouping has been criticized by some observers as more of a talk shop than an actual results-oriented body.
 
A stronger Indonesia empowers the overall capabilities of Asean. As a result, Asean as a whole would be better suited to deal with issues including piracy, the safe passage of trade through Southeast Asian waters, environmental and weather catastrophes, air disasters and so on.
 
The downside, of course, is that a beefed-up Indonesian Navy and its new Coast Guard could threaten regional stability. While the foreign policy of the previous administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was often criticized as toothless and lacking coherence and direction, with its oft-quoted maxim of “a thousand friends, zero enemy,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s foreign policy seems, so far, to be overly nationalistic. This could trigger alarm bells and handwringing in Southeast Asian capitals about whether the global maritime axis signals a shift toward a more confrontational and aggressive foreign policy posture.
 
To a certain extent this has already proven to be true, as Joko, in order to bolster his credentials as tough regarding Indonesian sovereignty and security, has ordered the scuttling of foreign ships caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. Reactions from neighboring countries have been swift, with many warning that Indonesia could increase regional tensions and hinder growing cooperation among Asean nations.
 
The global maritime axis should be put in the larger context of Joko’s policy making. Just consider his other moves since taking office last October. He authorized the executions of five foreign nationals on death row for drug smuggling – the first executions in Indonesia since late 2013 – despite appeals from their countries’ governments to commute their sentences. Joko has reorganized and streamlined his cabinet and been willing to risk political capital by making controversial political appointments.
 
He all but eliminated state subsidized gasoline, at the risk of his job approval rating. Bucking a longstanding trend, Joko has questioned the tactics and methods of security forces in Papua and promised to investigate the shooting deaths of five protesters there last December. There are even reports of Joko sweeping old Yudhoyono administration officials out of government positions.
 
All of this, in conjunction with the global maritime axis, signals to the world that there’s a new and distinct leader in Indonesia, and changes to Indonesian policy are afoot. Indonesia will no longer pursue selfless policies that seek to avoid offending anyone or anything. There is now a price to be paid for Jakarta’s friendship. As Joko himself remarked: “What’s the point of having many friends, but we only get the disadvantages?”
 
This logic could lead to a chill in Indonesian-Australian diplomatic relations, which have already been rocky during the past 18 months. A 2013 spying scandal put the brakes on the relationship, but arguably the more troubling issue is Canberra’s “turn back the boats” policy. Jakarta sees this as an infringement of Indonesian sovereignty and protested its implementation. Now, with a stronger emphasis on maritime sovereignty and a seemingly greater willingness to defend and protect it, we could see the high seas as a major flashpoint in the relationship. For instance, it is possible Indonesia could take maritime measures to prevent Australia from entering its waters to send asylum seekers back home. If that happened, how would Australia respond?
 
Such tussles are part of a much broader competition between Canberra and Jakarta. Both are vying for the status of king of the “middle powers,” on both a regional and global scale. Australia is a competent, though not dominant, military and economic power. Because of its climate, and cultural factors such as language and religion, and its smart diplomacy, Australia also wields considerable soft power. But Indonesia is catching up fast in a host of material and nonmaterial power indices, and Australia is well aware of this. It may see itself as one day soon being eclipsed by its “little brother” to the north and could be fearful of losing status and prestige to its neighbor.
 
It’s up to both sides to delicately manage this likely regional power transition. Indonesia must reassure Australia that it means no harm; Australia must give Indonesia a proper seat at the table of global and middle powers, showing Jakarta the respect it will want and deserve.
 
With respect to the broader Asia Pacific, an assertive Indonesia could pave the way for a clash with China, especially on Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea. The Indonesian Armed Forces, for example, have made strident tones about the sovereignty of the Natuna Islands, which appear to fall within China’s nine-dash line, and would like to see a more significant defense presence there. Might an emphasis on maritime power and security embolden the Indonesian military to take provocative actions in defense of the Natunas or even against Chinese fishing vessels that travel through Indonesian waters? It’s possible down the line, though for now, Indonesia will likely underplay any differences with Beijing, as it still looks to China as a source of foreign direct investment to upgrade its decaying infrastructure and jump-start economic development in the eastern part of the country.
 
At the same time, an assertive Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could expand its influence with Indonesia, since both countries remain wary of China’s intentions. Japan, along with Vietnam and the Philippines – the main countries that have territorial disputes with China – would love stronger and more varied relations with Jakarta, as this would offer the prospect of added support for their claims in the South China and East China Seas and be a buffer against Chinese aggression. Additionally, Japan has been one of the largest investors and international donors in Indonesia for many decades, which provides a focal point for stronger joint relations.
 
At the international level, Indonesia’s global maritime axis has attracted the attention of a number of foreign actors. On the one hand, defense ministries and arms manufacturers from countries such as Germany, Japan and the United States have responded to Joko’s axis policy with great alacrity. Indeed, as they avariciously seek to meet new demands in the marketplace, they’ve found a new, fresh opportunity to increase their profit margins. In their view, Indonesia is now a customer that’s potentially opening itself up to buy the latest and best maritime equipment, vessels and systems, and they’re ready and willing to sell their wares.
 
On the other hand, it’s also clear that various foreign state officials and leaders see the global maritime axis as an avenue to forge better, stronger inter-state ties. This applies to countries in Southeast and East Asia, as mentioned above, and it also applies to the United States.
 
In fact, Amy Searight, the American deputy assistant defense secretary for South and Southeast Asia, has said that the global maritime axis policy presents a good window for further joint talks and cooperation, since Indonesia and the United States sit in somewhat similar geographical positions – both are basically surrounded by waterways. Robert Blake, the US ambassador to Indonesia, has stated: “We stand ready to boost maritime collaboration, to complement the vision of President Jokowi.” Mind you, this cooperation isn’t just sought out by the United States; Indonesia has reached out as well, seeking to broaden and deepen cooperation with America on maritime security and defense. Reports suggest that both sides are looking to expand joint exercises, military training and capacity-building programs.
 
Indonesian officials, however, should be under no illusion about where the United States would like these cooperative efforts to lead: to a durable partnership and strong alliance, one that gets Indonesia off the ledge of nonalignment. In this way, Indonesia would be another tool in America’s arsenal for its impending superpower competition with China.
Along with India, which is another nonaligned country, Indonesia is a big prize for the United States. There is talk from Washington, from President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the American military, of furthering joint efforts with Jakarta to tackle the problem of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But there’s more to it than that. Not only is Indonesia the fourth-largest country in the world, it’s the third-biggest democracy and the most populous Muslim-majority nation. It also sits in a crucial geostrategic location, as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. If America can woo Indonesia to its side, it would allow Washington to broaden its pro-US coalition, help to strategically hem in China, and most important for the United States, entrench a Western-led and dominated order throughout Asia.
 
While space limitations prevent us from offering a full and complete set of policy recommendations, we will make one useful suggestion. Specifically, the Joko administration should invest considerable time and attention to how the global maritime axis is perceived by foreign countries, companies and groups. Keep in mind that Indonesia’s strategic moves don’t exist in a vacuum, devoid of context or external actors. Rather, they are made and take place in a web of international interactions and interdependencies.
 
How others think and respond to the policy does matter, and knowing these things is important. Such information would ensure that Jakarta isn’t caught off guard by negative responses or countermeasures, or that it’s not used and abused by outsiders. Lastly, it would help Joko administration officials to figure out how to tailor the global maritime axis to extant regional and international conditions.
 
Brad Nelson is president and cofounder of the Center for World Conflict and Peace, a US-based research organization
 
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesia Defense University
 

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